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Johnny Depp: 'I really don't consider myself an artist'

Depp, next to the beach in San Sebastián.
Depp, next to the beach in San Sebastián. / E. P.
  • The actor is the producer of Julien Temple's film about Shane MacGowan, the former lead singer of The Pogues

Twenty-two years after his first visit to the San Sebastián Film Festival, Johnny Depp returned last week to the the northern Spanish city to present Crock of Gold, Julien Temple's film about the former lead singer of The Pogues, Shane MacGowan. In this interview, every answer to a question was a long soliloquy, so we could only ask four questions in the time allocated to us. Depp did most of the talking, while Temple intervened occasionally, both of them with a drink in their hands.

Despite the pandemic, was it important for you to be at the festival?

Johnny Depp: Last night, when I met one of the people from the festival in the airport arrivals area, I said "I haven't been here for quite a while: ten years". And she said "twenty years" and I was really surprised. I remember a lot about San Sebastián because it's not like any other festival in the world.

Julien Temple: It's the best place to eat in the world, but of course I'm American.

J. D. : Over the years you see how San Sebastián keeps its initial promise to be a film festival, and it's only about films, nothing else, not what you do or where you go. That doesn't happen in other festivals, this is very authentic. We also wanted to show this film together because we are very proud of its protagonist. It's the first chance we have had to show it to the public, so it's worth us taking the risk. What Julien did was what many people have tried to do: to capture Shane and show him as he is, with all the pros and cons that go with it. Julien has been able to face up to the tiger. But getting close to him can be dangerous.

J. T. : More dangerous even than Covid, sometimes!

The film shows how important alcohol and drugs have been in MacGowan's life.

J. D. : I'm going to speculate from what I know: Shane is very shy, although that isn't the first impression he gives. He speaks when he feels like it and you can't manipulate him. He sees you at a distance and he confronts you, even if you're making a film which is like a love letter. He's in control throughout the film. He's hypersensitive, but since he was little he's learned to appear to be the opposite. That's something I understand. And when fame arrives, if you're introverted you become even more of a recluse. Some people hear the applause and think wow, that's great, but Shane isn't like that. He's uncomfortable with it, as I am. It goes against your way of being. The beauty of Shane is that he has stayed a totally genuine person, he doesn't want to be anybody other than himself, and that for me is number one on the list of what a true artist should be. The alcohol and the drugs are like his form of self-medication.

Learning

J. T. : It seems to me he sometimes uses them for the trips, because he took a lot of acid for different reasons, and also to expand his knowledge.

J. D. : He has won his medals, his awards. To maintain a long friendship with him, you also have to win your own. He tests you as you progress. During the early years, he used to insult me constantly.

J. T. : He is totally unpredictable, you find yourself loving him and hating him. For me, that is something magical.

J. D. : He is a person that bites verbally. He spits at you and says "Really? Now this?" He keeps testing you, he wants to assure himself that you're someone from within his circle. And yes, it irritates you. He can be very sweet, and he can also stick a needle in you and you ask yourself what you have done to deserve that. If he has known you for a long time, he is your voodoo.

Johnny, do you identify with Shane in using alcohol as a weapon against shyness?

J. D. : I've learned so many things from Shane! [laughs]. It's interesting that I've had the same experience with other people who have been very important in my life, like Hunter S. Thompson, Brando and many other crazies that I have been lucky enough to know. You can educate yourself a great deal with them and everything depends on how far you want to go. Yes, I remember the early days: one night I was with Shane in Dublin. We'd had a bit to drink and at a particular moment he put a couple of pills in my hand. You have to earn the awards, so I put them in my mouth and swallowed them. Three days later I found myself in a bath in the south of France. I couldn't remember anything, not even how I had got there. I looked out of the window, saw a beautiful fountain and realised that I wasn't in Dublin, so I asked the first person who passed by: "Where am I?" I don't regret anything.

Do you think there can be people like you and Shane in the film industry, or the music industry, today?

J. D. : I don't consider myself an artist at all. I really don't, I don't place myself on the level of other people who I admire so much. Just as in San Sebastián we can talk about cinema, in Hollywood people talk about films. That's all there is to say. I'm not good at following formulas, structures, limits, script A that leads to B and then to C. I like to mix everything up and confuse the public because that type of film... no, no it's not worth it. You try to do everything you can. For example, I approach the subject from the perspective of an artist, but I can't do that because I don't think that cinema is going to lead me to art.